Pick and Choose: Or Deciding What Info to Ignore

There is TOO MUCH information available.
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My name is Sue and I have a bad habit. I save e-mails with links to webinars that look interesting because I might some day decide to write a picture book biography or a chapter book series or . . .

You probably get the point.

The other day I was talking to a new children’s writer. When she mentioned feeling overwhelmed, I advised her to pick and choose the information that she keeps track of. “Save what you need right now. The rest will still be out there and it might be updated by the time you need it.”

Then today, I got another e-mail for a really interesting looking webinar.

Fortunately, my brain listens to me and that little voice had a thing or two to say. “What are you working on right now?” asked the little voice.

Me: A middle grade science fiction novel.

Little Voice: Anything else other than blog posts?

Me: When I finish that, I’ve got a nonfiction book proposal and a cozy.

Little Voice: That’s it?

Me: Way on the back burner, there’s that graphic novel and the memoir.

Fortunately, I got the point. Right now, I’m not doing anything that has to do with that particular webinar. So I don’t need to save it. I don’t need to squeeze it in. In fact, I can just ignore it. If I decide to do something that relates to it, I’ll do a couple of Google searches to find the information I need.

Whether you are a new writer or an experienced writer, it is tempting to hold on to information and bits and bobs of paper. And that’s fine if they relate to something you are working on or plan to work on in the immediate future.

There is so much information out there. If you hang on to a webinar for 3 years before you need the material, it probably will probably be out of date.

Focus on your current project(s). The rest? You’ll find it when you need it.


How to Know When to Put Something Aside

Sometimes a piece of wrting simply refuses to come together.
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The horrible reality is that not everything you write is going to be published. For example, this is not my first post written for Thursday. The first one is languishing in my drafts file here on WordPress. There are 3 times that I find myself have to put a piece of writing aside.

The Tone is Wrong

The piece that I started for today was on evaluating the information that you find online. Sadly it went from a solid piece of advice to a grey mess. The tone was simply all wrong.

The reality is that 9 times out of 10, a positive tone is going to work better than a negative tone. It is a lot like the advice my grandmother always gave out that you could catch more flies with honey than vinegar. If you can’t find a way to give your reader hope, you may want to sit on the piece for a while.

Not every piece can be hopeful but sometimes you need to put a bit more effort into it.

And part of the reason for this is that we are navel gazing – another handy phrase from my grandmother. She used this one when she wanted to tell you that you were self-absorbed.

When you are writing a piece because something makes you angry, you are probably putting a really negative spin on things. After all, you’re angry. It is natural. And the writing may help you work your way through it but that doesn’t make it a sound piece of writing. It is more of a journal entry.

The Missing Ending

Then there is the missing ending. You’ve got an excellent hook. The body is sound. But then it all just . . . drifts off into nothing. You have no clue how to tie things together neatly. Personally, this just means that I need to spend more time processing it.

And when I find the ending, I also find a way to give the reader hope and show them how to use X, Y or Z in their own life.

Set your problem piece aside for now. With a bit of space from it, you may well find that when you return to it the solution is oh so obvious.


3 Things to Know Before Including a Sidebar

Recently I was writing about the Kent State Massacre. It wasn’t the main focus of the project, and as I polished the chapter about this incident, I had to cut several fascinating points. The chapter was about 150 words too long so something had to go. One of these things was the information that I had found on faculty marshalls. The unarmed marshalls prevented additional deaths.

Behold: The humble sidebar

As factinating as this was, it didn’t fit tightly into the chapter. I was tempted to use the information in a sidebar. Not familiar with sidebars? Here are three things you need to know.

What’s a Sidebar?

See the photo on the right? The text in the green text box is a sidebar. Generally it is located at the side of a page of text. Get it? Side bar. But sometimes it is at the bottom of the page.  It is essentially a mini-article about a topic that is mentioned in the main text.

The sidebar in the graphic is in my Ancient Maya book. The main text included information about a jade artifact. The sidebar explained the importance of jade in Mayan culture.

Where to Locate It?

One of my nonfiction writing students is creating a how-to booklet. She has included several sidebars but has also struggled with where in the text they should be. I explained to her that you should include the sidebar on the same page where the topic is mentioned.

This can be a problem when I am writing a book with three to five sidebars per chapter. To allow an attractive design, the sidebars can’t be clustered in one part of the chapter. They have to be spaced throughout which means spacing out where you mention the sidebar topics.

What if I Can’t Mention It?

Can’t mention it in the main text?  Then you can’t include it in a sidebar.

And that’s really okay.  You want your piece to be slick and focused.  That’s going to attract an editor and readers. If your sidebar topic, like the faculty marshalls, is too tangential to mention, it should not be in the chapter.

Those things that can’t become sidebars? Use them in a different piece of writing. 


Accountability: Making Commitment Work for You

December is just around the corner. No, really. It starts tomorrow. And if you are anything like me you are looking around at everything that you meant to accomplish but didn’t. The reality is pretty simple – most of us are best at getting things done if we are held accountable. That’s why NaNoWriMo works so well for so many people. Announce that you are doing it and there is an expectation.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways what you can build accountability into even December.

Write It In

Do you use a calendar app to remind you when it is time to pick up the kids from school? The good news is that you can also program it to remind you to write.

A paper calendar isn’t going to ping you on your phone but that’s just as well. Everyone and everything wants to ping me so I can ignore that quite well. But if I put it on my calendar I am going to do it. I’ve even got a color coded system.

White washi tape – billing

Orange washi tape – writing deadline

Yellow washi tape – meeting

Grey washi tape – something to do with the classes I teach

Critique/Accountability Group

Another way to hold yourself accountable is to join a critique or accountability group although the two work a bit differently. A critique group involves critiquing work. If I know I am going to have a meeting every other Wednesday, I make sure to have something to share every other Wednesday. That’s at least two chapters a month.

An accountability group holds you accountable and, although they may also critique, that isn’t the point. My critique group is all children’s writers. My accountability group covers the writing spectrum. But they are both great motivators.

Take a Class

Another way to create accountability for yourself is to take a class. What you need to take depends on what you need to work on. I took a class on social media to help me plan out my posts. Efficiency in that area helps me have more time for my novels. I teach classes on researching children’s nonfiction, writing children’s nonfiction, and querying your work whether it is nonfiction or fiction, for children and adults. They are all offered through WOW! Women on Writing where other instructors teach about writing TV pilots, blogging, screen writing and more. Check out the listings here. With a class, the combination of a monetary investment and deadlines are a great motivation.

Different motivators work for different people. The trick is in finding one that works for you.


Transitioning to a New Project

It may take me a few days to emerge from the depths to start a new project.
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This weekend, my brother-in-law asked what I’m working on. Friday, I had a book due. It doesn’t help that it was a contracted confidential job. Sometimes when nonwriters ask what I’m working on, I blank.








“That wasn’t a trick question, Sue.”

But it was. Because I had just finished a huge project and hadn’t yet shifted to anything else. Sure, I know I’m finishing the class I’m teaching and the class I’m taking. I’m going to get back into my middle grade novel. I know this. But I hadn’t done it yet.

When you find yourself off in the fog like this, it is probaby a sign that you are tiny bit fatigued and maybe, just maybe, you need to take a break. That’s what I’m planning to do.
YES, I’m going to get the things I mentioned above done and I’m going to reread what I’ve written on my MG but I’m going to take a few days to more-or-less just be.

I’m planning to crochet. Maybe do some lettering. We’ve got left over bread from Thanksgiving so I don’t have an excuse to bake again but if the bananas go I’ll have an excuse to make muffins.

When you finish a project and you’re eager to move on to the next big thing, do it! You don’t have to fiddle around and do nothing much for several days. But if you feel the need to goof off, then do it!

As a society, we focus a bit much on tasks completed and goals. As a goal oriented person, I feel I can say this firmly and without apology. Sometimes we just need to be. Do something that isn’t writing related. Do something that no one else is going to get excited about or pat you on the back for doing. Put up your feet, drink tea and read.

Or, if you are like my brother-in-law, rebuild the fence. What can I say, physical labor relaxes him. Sitting stresses him out.

Take some time and when an idea starts bugging you, sit down and write. That way, at Christmas, when someone asks what you are working on, you’ll have an answer.

Or at least that’s my plan.


Happy Thanksgiving

For those of you who celebrate, I’d like to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. Take this time to recharge your creative battery.

I have a lot to be thankful for in my writing life.  This week book #36 is due tomorrow.

Once I get this done, I’ll be back to my middle grade science fiction novel.  I’ve really been enjoying writing fiction.

What about recharging? I’m taking time off today to celebrate.  And tomorrow.  And Saturday.  I don’t know if this is just a MidWest thing but our Thanksgiving celebration stretches across Thanksgiving Weekend. So for the next several days I’ll be meeting this deadline but I will also be having family time.

I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday.  See you on Monday.


How Long Do You Give a Book to Hook You?

How long do you give a book to hook you?
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This is something that a lot of writers don’t like to think about, but how long do you have to hook the reader? I’ve been to writing events where editors and agents will read to the end of the first manuscript page and then say whether or not they would read on. At some of these events, they only read the first 11 to 15 lines – a true first manuscript page.

When I talk to readers, people give me a variety of answers. Some will read 50 pages. Others read 20.

If the book or manuscript doesn’t impress, thumbs down! Rejection!

I have to admit that if I really don’t like something about a book, I will quit at the end of the first chapter. What can I say? If I don’t like it, I don’t read it. This isn’t like working with a trainer. I don’t NEED to do it.

So why do I put a book down? Sometimes the situation is just too improbable to believe. Put a timber rattler someplace timber rattlers aren’t found and pair that with a cistern in a ridiculous location and you’ve lost me. And, yes. We have a cistern. I’ve reassembled a pump, know how to soak the seal, and have seen a timer rattler.

Sometimes I really don’t like the character’s voice. This is a huge problem with audio books. I have to fall for the character’s voice and the reader’s voice. One or the other can be a deal breaker. I don’t like mean characters. I’ll read an anti-hero or a character who is hard but a meanie? No thank you.

And you absolutely cannot bore me. This is where things get really personal. Name drop clothing designers and high end whatever and I’m going to nod off. Other people might love that, but not me.

The book might also be a bad fit for me right now. I was sent a galley and just couldn’t read it. I love the author but the story was just too dark. My sister tried to read it and said the same thing. I gave the book to a friend and she devoured it.

Not every book is right for every reader. Even a reader who will love our work on Tuesday may be in the wrong place to appreciate it on Monday. Our job is to make our work as solid as possible.


How to Get Back into a Project

Here’s hoping my manuscript is half this glad to see me again.
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Before my dad got sick, I managed to work on my novel and my nonfiction book proposal every day. I’d made good progress on both and was on track to be done by the end of the year. But with him in the hospital, I was there 12 hours a day for two and a half weeks. I worked on contract work but these two project fell by the wayside. I’ve yet to get back to them.

My hope is that next week will be the week. But by then we’ll have been apart for two months. How do you get back into a project after a long absence? The nonfiction isn’t going to be a problem. I can slip back into nonfiction with very little fuss. But the novel? That’s going to take a bit of work fortunately there are several ways I can go about it.

Read what is written. If you’ve written several chapters for a longer book or several spreads for a picture book, reread what you’ve already written.  Don’t read silently.  Read it aloud so that you can literally hear the voice. That’s something that should help me with this project.

Revisit your inspiration.  What inspired you to write this piece in the first place?  Perhaps it is something you were inspired to write after hearing a news story on NPR.   Listen to this piece again.  Or reread the news article that made you want to cover this topic.  For me this is often enough to renew my enthusiasm and get me going again. I need to find some nonfiction to read.

Visit the time or place.  If you are writing a piece set in a specific time period.  Get back into that period.  Listen to music.  Maybe you can find a recording of a news cast or other period material.  Visit Youtube and see if someone has posted a video of your location.  Get a feel once again for the time and place of your story. I was about to say that I can’t do that but I do have a space exploration encyclopedia I can sample.

What’s been going on?  Ask your character what it has been like waiting for you to get back.  Why does she want you to get going again?  I know this sounds hokey but this technique always brings new insight into my story and makes me want to dive back in.

Engage in a writing or rewriting ritual.  Do you have something you do every time you sit down to write?  Mine isn’t a writing ritual but when I do hard copy rewrites, I set things up in the dining room.  I have my print out, an automatic pencil or nice pen, my licorice candle, and a cup of coffee.  I have no clue why this works, but it tends to get me going when nothing else does.

The next time you are trying to get over a long absence from a project, see if one of these techniques doesn’t get you started again.


Show Us Who Your Character Is

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Show don’t tell. Say that to me and you are going to get a look. It is one of those phrases I hate because it is . . . ugh! It is so hard to balance showing readers who your character is with creating a scene when a single narrative line would do the same job.

How do you know when to show and when to tell?

The reality is that you need to have a balance. If you can create an interesting scene that moves your story forward and shows who your character is, do it. If you can work in a detail that will be vital later in the story, DO IT!

As so often happens, life events moved me to consider this. This weekend, my family made a trek to the cemetery. We had to find the family section but this particular cemetery only allows markers that are flush with the ground. They make mowing easy but they make locating things tricky.

It took my sister an hour to navigate the winding drives and then to find the plot. Should I tell or should I show? I could simply say “Frannie had no sense of direction.” That’s telling.

Or I could elaborate.

“Frannie circled the lawns, shifting from second into first. She had to keep an eye on the road which made looking at the map tricky. She’s already had to stomp on the brake twice to avoid the geese that were everywhere – east, west . . . she wasn’t even sure which was which. At last she saw an oramental pond and an arched bridge. She pulled over and looked at the map. Getting out of the car, she stood at the highest point on the bridge. The grass wasn’t long but it was long enough that she couldn’t see a single headstone. If she didn’t know better she would think she was in a country estate and not a cholera cemetery.”

Okay, I have to admit it. I just threw in the bit about the cholera cemetery. It seemed to add the right ZIP to the whole thing.

In this case, I would go with the scene. From it we know that Frannie has a poor sense of direction, that she drives a stick, and that she’s in a cholera cemetery. That’s a fair amount of information for one short scene.

Use a scene to help pull your reader in, to create a sense of place and time, or to plant clues and foreshadow. Use narrative for transitions and to avoid ho hum scenes like the dreaded “waking up” scene. Narrative can also be a good way to supply backstory.

You may find that there is a certain amount of trial and error involved. Fortunately we all know that rewriting is a big part of the writing process.



What Is Your Picture Book About?

This is one of those questions that you see posed in many workshops about picture book writing. I most really saw it in the workshop with agent Sean McCarthy at the Kansas-Missouri Regional Conference. The way the question is posed is this:

What is your story about?

What is it really about?

If you are anything like me, this is the sort of thing that can leave you scratching your head. You know your story has to have layers. You know there’s a plot and a theme. Why is everyone making it so complex?

Then I read Borders by Thomas King, illustrated by Natasha Donovan. Admittedly, I had to sleep on it but by morning I got it. Really got it.

Do I really need to say this? Just in case someone is feeling fussy today. From here on PLOT SPOILERS.

Borders is a story about a boy and his mother travelling from Canada to the US to visit his sister in Las Vegas. That’s the simplest and shallowest explanation.

Borders is also about identity. It is about what we are forced to say about ourselves by those in power even if it is not how we identify.

How can the book be about both of these things? Because the young narrator and his mother are on a trip to visit his sister in Las Vegas. They are traveling from Canada. But they are also Blackfoot.

When the border guards ask for their nationality, Mom insists on giving one and only one answer. They are Blackfoot. It is simple. And, it is the answer.

But it isn’t the answer that the border guards want. It isn’t the answer that they insist on.

And yet, it is a legitimate answer. I’m not going to tell you how the story is resolved. For that information, you have to read it yourself. Like I said, plot spoiler not climax spoiler.

So, what is your story about? What is it really about? You might have to sleep on it but you should be able to answer both questions.